2015 a big year for women in sports, but will it carry over? – Chicago Tribune

The Tribune covers women’s high school sports extensively yet essentially ignores those athletes when they get to college (where about 43 percent of scholarship athletes are women) and beyond. Rarely does anyone complain in an email or phone call about the lack of women’s sports coverage, Knowles said.

“Sports departments tend to be male-dominated, and the culture within them is unfortunately not all that welcoming to women or women’s sports,” Knowles said.

Nor, alas, is the culture at large, even in 2015. When the Sky’s Elena Delle Donne scored 45 points earlier this season, the troglodytic response on social media, decrying the level of competition and using other shopworn tropes, was so dismaying the team reacted by putting together a YouTube video of Delle Donne humorously “dunking” her critics.

And that stuff was milquetoast compared with the reprehensible things men think they have the right to tweet and say publicly about women, especially women in the sports media.

“Sports is still considered by so many guys to be the last bastion of their dominance,” said Carillo, a former pro tennis player. “The dismissive way so many of these clowns talk about women’s sports, you can tell they never have watched. I would love to say at some point that is all going to go away, but I just don’t see it.”

Breaking through

The naysayers always fall back on the simplistic: comparing the physical abilities of women — speed, power, strength — to those of men rather than taking the time to view remarkable female athletes in their own context.

“We’re not real good in this country about just appreciating people that are good. We always have to compare,” said Geno Auriemma, coach of 10-time NCAA champion UConn and the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team.

“Our Olympic (women’s team) is the best in the history of the Olympics. We’ve won five straight gold medals. But because we travel with the greatest basketball players in the world, when you make a comparison, you always come up short.”

Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman were excellent basketball coaches before the Spurs and Kings validated that to some skeptics by hiring them as NBA assistants. Delle Donne is a great basketball player. Period. Williams is a great tennis player, period, Rousey a great mixed martial arts fighter. Period. Exclamation point.

“With Ronda, initially it was this polarizing personality and somewhat interesting female fighter,” said Kelly Amonte Hiller, whose Northwestern women’s lacrosse teams have won seven NCAA titles. “Now you see she is unbelievably talented. It’s cool to see how she has helped that aspect of women’s sports grow so quickly.”

Measuring the relative appeal of men’s and women’s team sports also is an easy way to be dismissive. Men have dominated this conversation for more than a century, and some of their professional and college team sports have existed that long, with the others (except the NBA, which started in 1946) going back before World War II.

The “venerable” WNBA, its survival assured by the NBA backing a previous league lacked, began only in 1997. The NWSL started in 2013 and by next year, thanks to the financial support of U.S. Soccer, it will have outlived the two previous U.S. pro women’s soccer leagues, which lasted only three years each. It wasn’t until 1982 the NCAA began running the women’s basketball championship; the men’s began in 1939.

“Men have had an enormous advantage out of the starting blocks in terms of interest, coverage and corporate sponsorship,” Minnesota’s Kane said. “It’s like comparing a tech startup to Apple.”

‘Needle is moving’

Billie Jean King, a legend as a tennis player and women’s rights activist, has been insisting since the mid-1970s, before the first women’s pro leagues were formed, they would be critical to the advancement of female athletes.

“I felt then, and I still feel, women’s sports will not really arrive until the teams and the leagues succeed,” King said. “America was then, and still is, all about teams. Forty years later, the needle is moving, even if it is ever so slowly.”

The way the media and public talked about the U.S. women’s World Cup team as compared with 1999 also moved the needle.

In 1999, when their fame grew organically and David Letterman called them “babes,” the team was discussed as a sociological phenomenon, the women who somehow got 90,000 people to the Rose Bowl.

This year, with substantial pre-tournament hype, they were looked at as a sports team, with debates over whether the coach was an idiot, who should be playing, what tactics they should use, what the strengths and weaknesses of opponents were.

“The 1999 team was necessary to get to 2015,” sports business consultant Marc Ganis said. “The 2015 team was another evolutionary step and a big leap forward.”

Average attendance for the NWSL’s 10 teams in the six weeks after the World Cup was up by nearly 33 percent over the same period last year, to 5,642 per game. The Red Stars sold out two recent games at Benedictine.

But there can be a World Cup boost only once every four seasons, and this year’s undoubtedly was larger because the tournament was in neighboring Canada.

“It’s too soon to tell whether the summer of 2015 is going to be a tipping point,” Kane said, “but there are many indications progress is being made. The next frontier is acceptance of women’s sports around attendance, media coverage and corporate sponsorship.”

Men’s sports will always overshadow women’s, but girls and women never will be left in the wintry dark of exclusion and total inattention again. That makes Serena’s Grand Slam quest a fitting end to this season in the sun.


Twitter @olyphil

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